The drink of the gods conquered the tastebuds of both the American Indigenous people and European Royals.
February is the month of hot chocolate in Calgary. For 28 days, more than 15 businesses across the city competed in creating Calgary’s best hot chocolate of 2019. It’s funny how this drink has conquered the coldest countries when its origins are warm, tropical lands.
This is its history.
The Mayans, Aztecs, and Cocoa
Back in 600 BC, the Mayan Civilization, who lived in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, believed that cocoa was a gift from the Gods. Mayans worked with cocoa plantations by clearing existing forests and planting cocoa trees in their place. They nurtured the trees, harvested pods, and ground the beans into powder, which was mixed with water and spices such as vanilla, chili, dried flower petals, and cornmeal. They served it in cups as a beverage.
The cocoa drink was bitter as the Mayans didn’t have sugar. It was made frothy by shaking it or blowing air into the bowl and served cool or at room temperature.
Cocoa was essential in Mayan society: it was served during religious rituals and holidays, and it was considered a luxury item. It even became a form of money: Mayans could buy an onion for a single cocoa bean, or a rabbit for ten.
Then the Aztecs, a civilization from Tenochtitlan (what is now Mexico City), conquered the Mayans and established themselves in their territory. The Aztecs mixed chocolate with blood and gave it to sacrificial victims to drink.
After Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, there were many explorers from different parts of the world. One of them was Hernan Cortes, from Spain.
When Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs thought he was their expected and benevolent God: Quetzalcoatl. They offered him the sacred cocoa beverage in golden goblets with silver stirrers as a sign of its importance.
Cortes, taking advantage of the Aztec’s confusion, took them as his slaves, destroyed their territory, and established the “New Spain.” Spanish men settled in the Americas and Cortes began profiting from the cocoa bean trade.
Word says that nuns in a convent in Oaxaca (Southern Mexico) added sugarcane (probably imported from Cuba) to their drinks in 1522. This addition made hot cocoa even more popular.
In 1528, Cortes brought the recipe with him when he returned to Spain, along with a boatload of cocoa beans with the tools and equipment to grind them and turn them into powder.
He even brought ceremonial cups and bowls for serving the cocoa drink. But preparing cocoa wasn’t as easy as he thought: the beans had to be fermented, smashed, sifted, strained, heated, and mixed with the right amount of water and spice.
Then, they had to be shaken in a precise way to be turned into a foamy drink. Cortes was selfish, and he didn’t trust the recipe to many people but he did give it to monks who tweaked the ingredients: they added cinnamon to make it more flavourful for the Spanish elite and only served it hot.
The Spanish saw the cocoa drink as a potion that would keep them healthy and they paid a high price for it. The time between shipments from the Americas took weeks or even months.
Funny thing is, the Spanish didn’t share cocoa with any other countries, as they feared they would try to take away their few beans.
Cocoa and The Old World
In 1606, Francesco Carletti returned to Italy from his expedition in the Americas, where he met the Aztecs, who offered him cocoa. Carletti told his friends in Italy about this marvellous drink and they managed to get some beans from the Americas. They even created their own drink without asking the Spanish for help.
Later on, the French discovered cocoa when the daughter of Spain’s King, Anne of Austria, married King Louis XIII of France and moved there, bringing her favourite things, including cocoa.
French royals were amazed by cocoa and started seeking ways to find more. The demand for cocoa was so high, that Spain’s trading partners demanded access to the cocoa beans, and even nations at war with Spain stole cocoa from its ships.
Spain was losing its grip on the new world due to its fights with other countries and the uprising in its territories. On the other hand, France took over some parts of Haiti in 1684 and established its own plantations of cocoa.
In the end, the Spanish stronghold on the cocoa trade and its role in developing chocolate ended by the influence of Dutch merchants, who were leading traders in the world during the 1600s and 1700s.
The Dutch owned two large companies that dealt with international trade: the Dutch East India Company, which dealt with Asia, and the Dutch West India Company, which dealt with the Americas.
The Dutch West India Company set up a port with warehouses on the Caribbean island of Curacao to handle the goods coming out of Central and South America, mainly cocoa.
Thanks to this company, the Dutch sold cocoa to other countries and had a regular supply of the beans to ship back to Europe. At the beginning of the 18th century, Spain weakened to ongoing wars and retired from the cocoa business so the Dutch and other European countries took over and turned the cocoa plant and its seeds into the chocolate we know today.
Cocoa VS Cacao
The Mayans called the cacao tree, kawkaw, and the Spanish conquistadors wrote it as cacao. But when this treat arrived in Europe, English speakers wrote it as “cocoa” and even called them cocow nuts.
In 1753, Carl Linnaeus, who developed the method to classify living species, named the cocoa tree and called it Theobroma cacao. Theobroma is from the Greek “food of the gods” and cocoa comes from its original name in Spanish.
Linnaeus’ naming system meant that many people still called the plant the cacao tree, but English-speaking countries called it the cocoa tree. The Aztecs used the word xocolatl, which means “Chocolate” in their tongue Nahuatl.
Hot Choc around the world
Nowadays, hot chocolate is considered comfort food, and its characteristics vary across the world.
In Europe, it is thick and rich, almost to the point of being warm chocolate pudding while in North America is thinner and consumed more often. In Nigeria, hot chocolate it’s referred to as “tea”.
People around the world drink hot chocolate differently. In Canada and the U.S., people often add marshmallows or whipped cream on top. Countries like Colombia add cheese to experience sweetness and sourness.
The Spanish usually accompany their hot chocolate cup with churros. In Mexico, hot chocolate is more bitter than the North American one. It also has a brother called champurrado, a hot drink made of corn, water or milk, chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon.
Champurrado is a traditional Mexican drink that it's usually sold on the streets in the winter time. In Mexico City, there’s is a Chocolate Museum where you can enjoy the very first version of hot chocolate.
Hot Chocolate in Calgary
The cold in Calgary can only improve with a cup of hot chocolate. The YYC Hot Chocolate Fest, presented by Calgary Meals on Wheels, runs through the entire month of February.
In this festival, every year, participating cafes, restaurants, and chocolatiers compete to serve YYC’s Best Hot Chocolate, and the Best Spirited Hot Chocolate.
The Eastern Sun was the participating hot chocolate by Waves' coffee. It is a turmeric and dark chocolate drink made from Belgian dark chocolate chips and Golden Turmeric Elixir topped with whipped cream and garnished with a crystallized ginger slice.
For 28 days, Calgarians drink a variety of hot cocoas and vote for their favourite, all for a good cause. Every cup sold supports Calgary Meals on Wheels, providing nutritious meals to vulnerable populations.
Over 50+ businesses participated this year, but Alforno Bakery & Cafe took the crown with their S’Mores Hot Chocolate, which included velvet Valrhona dark hot chocolate with a graham cracker crumb rim and a house-made marshmallow.
The Best Spirited Hot Chocolate award went to Cravings Market Restaurant and its chocolate shavings, brûléed buttered caramel, spiced rum with bullet bourbon reduction, maple whip cream, steamed milk, and fluff rim with buttered graham crackers.
If you’re feeling adventurous, here’s the authentic recipe for xocolatl, provided by Harvey P. Newquist.
What you need:
3 cups of water
1 green chili pepper (Anaheim or Jalapeño, sliced)
2 heating tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (or unsweetened baking chocolate)
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
* If you’re using baking chocolate in bar form, you’ll have to grate it and smash it with a mortar and pestle to get it close to a powder. You may also substitute solid raw cocoa mass for the unsweetened cocoa powder, and grate that into a powder.
1. Put 1 cup of water and the sliced chilly into a pot. Boil the water for 5 minutes.
2. Remove the water from the pot, then strain it into another pot to remove all the chilli solids, like skin and seeds. Put the water back in the original pot, set it to boil, and add the remaining two cups of water.
3. As the water is boiling, stir the unsweetened cocoa, unsweetened baking chocolate, or cocoa mass into it.
4. Add vanilla extract. Stir for five minutes.
5. Pour the boiling concoction into a mug. Using a small whisk, stir the beverage until it gets frothy (this takes a while). Foam on the top was a big part of the experience, so you should give it a try.
6. Let the drink cool a bit, then sip and enjoy!
Sources: Newquist, HP. “The Mysterious History of Hot Chocolate.” The Book of Hot Chocolate, Penguin House, 2017, pp. 8-14